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Surgical Drain Care: Care Instructions

What is a surgical drain?

After a surgery, fluid may collect inside your body in the surgical area. This makes an infection or other problems more likely. A surgical drain allows the fluid to flow out.

The doctor will put a thin rubber tube into the area of your body where the fluid is likely to collect. The rubber tube will carry the fluid outside your body. The most common type of surgical drain carries the fluid into a collection bulb that you empty. This is called a Jackson-Pratt drain. The drain uses suction created by the bulb to pull the fluid from your body into the bulb.

The rubber tube will probably be held in place by one or two stitches in your skin. Most people attach the bulb with a safety pin to clothing or near the bandage so that it doesn't flip around or pull on the stitches.

When you first get the drain, the fluid will be bloody. It will change colour from red to pink to a light yellow or clear as the wound heals and the fluid starts to go away.

Your doctor may give you specific information on when you no longer need the drain and when it will be removed. In general, you will need the drain until you are collecting less than about 2 tablespoons of fluid in 24 hours.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

How can you care for yourself at home?

Fluid collection

Follow any instructions your doctor gives you. How often you empty the bulb depends on how much fluid is draining. Empty the bulb when it is half full.

To empty the bulb:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water.
  • Take the plug out of the bulb.
  • Empty the bulb. If your doctor asks you to measure the fluid, empty the fluid into a measuring cup, and write down the colour and how much you collected. Your doctor will want to know this information. How often you empty the bulb depends on how much fluid there is. Doctors often suggest emptying it when it's about half full.
  • Clean the plug with alcohol.
  • Squeeze the bulb until it is flat. This removes all the air from the bulb. You may need to put the bulb on a table or a counter to flatten it.
  • Keep the bulb flat and put the plug in.
  • The bulb should stay flat after you put the plug back in. This creates the suction that pulls the fluid into the bulb.
  • Empty the fluid into the toilet.
  • Wash your hands.

Bandage care

You may have a bandage. Your doctor will tell you how often to change it.

  • Wash your hands with soap and water.
  • Take off the bandage from around the drain.
  • Clean the drain site and the skin around it with soap and water. Use gauze or a cotton swab.
  • When the site is dry, put on a new bandage.

Drain care

Squeezing or "milking" the tube can help prevent clogs so that it drains correctly. Your doctor will tell you when you need to do this. In general, you do this when:

  • You see a clot in the tube that is preventing fluid from draining. The clot may look like a dark, stringy lining.
  • You see fluid leaking around the tube where it goes into the skin.
  • You think there is no suction in the drain.

To milk the tube:

  • Use one hand to hold and pinch the tube where it leaves the skin.
  • With the other hand, pinch the tube with your thumb and first finger just below where you're holding it.
  • Slowly and firmly push your thumb and first finger down the tubing toward the bulb.
  • Do this as many times as you need to. The clot should move down the tube and into the bulb.

When should you call for help?

Call your doctor or nurse call line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have signs of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness around the area.
    • Red streaks leading from the area.
    • Pus draining from the area.
    • A fever.
  • You see a sudden change in the colour or smell of the drainage.
  • The tube is coming loose where it leaves your skin.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse call line if:

  • You see a lot of fluid around the drain.
  • You cannot remove a clot from the tube by milking the tube.

Where can you learn more?

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